Feature | Just Your Average Gardener

My first conversation with Dr. Wawan Sujarwo went a little something like this.

Him: “How did you find my [research] paper?”

Me: “I found it on Google.”

Him: “But how did you access it? You need to have a subscription to a scientific journal database to read it.”

Me: “I asked a friend who works at a university research library to get it for me.”

Him: “And you’re a chef?”

Me: “Yes.”

Him: “I’m fairly certain no chef has ever read my paper before.”

During my first year working in Indonesia, I was focused on sourcing local produce from Bali specifically. It came at a time when I was disappointed by the options at the pasar—either produce that was cultivated in mountainous Balinese farms, or imported from Java or abroad. Abroad! As a chef, inspiration for new dishes comes in many forms, not in the least the ingredients. How are Sunkist lemons from Australia going to inspire me?

I realized then that I would have to conduct my own search for more obscure produce in Bali. I couldn’t fault the pasar for their selection; they were operating at the most basic of economic models: supply and demand. What I was looking for was not what most Ibus were cooking in their warungs and kitchens.

So I turned to Google.

Search words: wild, plants, edible, Bali. Enter.

My eyes skimmed the results. Page after page, nothing matched. Results like “ecology of Java and Bali,” “Balinese food” or “flora and fauna” were not specific enough. Then one link caught my eye:

“Traditional knowledge of wild and semi-wild edible plants used in Bali (Indonesia) to maintain biological and cultural diversity.”

Bingo.

Dr. Wawan was correct; I couldn’t access the paper right away. But through a former New York roommate who could access any research paper in the world, she had it in my inbox days later.

As far as research papers go, this one was easily digestible. The first sentence read—”We report the first ethnobotanical study of wild and semi-wild food plants used by the inhabitants of the villages of Bali.” I wasn’t familiar with the term “ethnobotany,” so I found the definition—”The scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses.”

Bulls-eye.

The research divided Bali into 13 villages and the researchers travelled to each one to ask the locals what plants they used. The final results recorded 86 plants identifying their geographical locations and whether they were used culinarily, medicinally or both.

Before I broke out into a celebration dance, I wanted to see if my Balinese colleagues recognized any of these plants. With the vernacular names in tow, I asked around the kitchen—”Have you ever heard of this?” or “Have you seen this in your village?” Out of the plants studied, only 15 species, or 17%, were familiar to my staff. That’s when it dawned on me that I found something valuable.

Who was this W. Sujarwo, the lead researcher? I emailed one of the other researchers, whose email address was published on the paper, to inquire for more information. She responded immediately and referred me to Dr. Wawan Sujarwo himself.

Following a few months after our initial email introduction, I wanted to meet Dr. Wawan in person. I used my only day off in the week to visit him at Kebun Raya Bali in Bedugul, where he worked, and discovered that he was from Java and had been working in Bali for nine years. To my delight, he was an amiable scientist, happy to discuss his work and passion—plants.

There was one poignant moment during our meeting when I asked him a question that juxtaposed our careers—”Do you taste any of these plants? What do they taste like?” He earnestly replied, “I don’t know. I don’t taste them.”

I was incredulous. As a chef, all I want to do is taste new produce and ingredients. As a scientist, all he wants to do is find data and analyze it. Taste had nothing to do with it. But in that instant, I visualized a link between the two professions. People studying and locating plants and people using and cooking with them. It was a natural pairing—botanists and chefs.

Among the many circumstances that led to the launch of ASLI FOOD PROJECT ft. Indonesia, this chance meeting initiated by an obscure research paper and investigative Google search is my favorite.

I had been addressing Dr. Wawan as “Professor” after months of correspondence. My American-trained notion that people who earn their doctorate prefer to be addressed by their hard-earned title compelled me to follow etiquette. But one day, he told me it wasn’t necessary.

“I think of myself as a gardener. I’m just a gardener.”

Okay, Professor gardener.

– C

Photo: Weekly run at Ubud Pasar, 5:00am.

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